Sun, Sep 11, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Polly Evans does China on a comedy shoestring

With plenty of cliche, `Fried Eggs with Chopsticks' is no laughing matter from a comfortable armchair in Taipei

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Fried Eggs with Chopsticks
By Polly Evans
329 pages
Bantam

Deep in China's Yunnan province, Polly Evans meets by chance the British TV personality Michael Palin at a Chinese opera performance. He asks her what kind of books she writes. "Er, well, um, you know, kind of humorous travel stuff really," she replies. And there you have the gist of this flippant, mildly amusing, reasonably intelligent, but in the final analysis annoyingly lightweight book.

Fried Eggs with Chopsticks -- the title says it all. This is an account of travel through China "by any means possible" that milks the author's experiences for comic effects on every other page. If you happen to share Evans' sense of humor, then you'll certainly enjoy this book. Unfortunately, I don't. This made reading it something of an ordeal.

This is the third of Evans' travel accounts. The first two concerned pedaling round Spain on a bicycle and touring New Zealand on a motorbike. The titles, It's not about the Tapas and Kiwis Might Fly, suggest that these books shared the same facetious, slapstick sense of humor.

Here's an example of this author's comic style. She has taken an over-night bus from Lijiang to Kunming, and after a few hours the vehicle pulls into a bus park. Women with megaphones direct the drivers as to where to put their vehicles, and then enter the buses to address the passengers. Evans knows little Chinese, but this is what she speculates the woman is saying.

"Good morning, passengers. It is 2am and you have arrived safely in hell. You will not leave here for a seemingly interminable time, because Driver Number One is hungry, and Driver Number Two appears to have died. You will therefore lie here in the darkness and contemplate your bruises in silence punctuated only by my gloriously amplified screeching. Please make sure you have stowed your bodies securely in the overhead bunks. Have a nice night."

If you find this funny then fine. But be warned -- much of the book is like this, though there are also nuggets of historical information, usually characteristically flavored with facetious asides.

She doesn't visit all regions of China, needless to say, but she doesn't do too badly. She goes west from Beijing by train to Datong, then travels by trains and buses to Shanghai via Xi-an and Nanjing. She then flies to Zhongdian, nowadays advertised as Shangri-La itself and clearly the scenic high point of her trip. There she does a short trek (luxury-category, and I don't blame her) arranged by friends in Beijing who conveniently run a tour agency.

From there it's down to Lijiang, and then the nightmare bus journey to Kunming. From Kunming she takes a side-trip to Jinghong, then the train to Guilin and finally Hong Kong.

One thought occurs to me and that is if you happen to be enduring the undoubted hardships of travel though China at the very time you are reading Fried Eggs with Chopsticks, then it might well appear a good deal funnier that it did to me, sitting comfortably in my armchair in Taipei. The comedy, in other words, might actually relieve some of the discomfort. What you are living through has been experienced by someone before you, and that person has at least been able to make a joke, and hence to some extent to make light, of it all.

But I do have more serious objections to this book. Its use of cliche may be deliberate where the author is striving for her comic effects, but elsewhere it irks. In the space of two pages I found "within spitting distance of the airport," "higgledy-piggledy backstreets," "a riot of color," "every imaginable hue" and "a heady perfume." This, I'm afraid, was just too much for me.

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